Rheumatic Fever - A rare but potentially life-threatening disease

Image - Rheumatic Fever Symptoms on human body

A rare but potentially life-threatening disease, rheumatic fever is a complication of untreated strep throat, caused by streptococcus A bacteria. The main symptoms-fever, muscle aches, swollen and painful joints, and in some cases, a red latticelike rash-typically begin one to six weeks after a bout of strep, although in some cases the infection may have been too mild to have been recognized. Rheumatic fever can also cause a temporary nervous system disorder once known as St. Vitus's dance. Today it is called chorea. People with mild cases of chorea may find it difficult to concentrate or write. More severe cases can cause the muscles of the arms, legs, or face to twitch uncontrollably.

The joints most likely to become swollen from rheumatic fever are the knees, ankles, elbows, and wrists. The pain often migrates from one joint to another. However, the greatest danger from the disease is the damage it can do to the heart. In more than half of all cases, rheumatic fever scars the valves of the heart, forcing this vital organ to work harder to pump blood. Over a period of months or even years-particularly if the disease strikes again-this damage to the heart can lead to a serious condition known as rheumatic heart disease, which can eventually cause the heart to fail.

Because of antibiotics, rheumatic fever is now rare in developed countries. In recent years, though, it has begun to make a comeback in the United States, particularly among children living in poor inner-city neighborhoods. The disease tends to strike most often in cool, damp weather during the winter and early spring. In the United States, it is most common in the northern states.

Causes

Rheumatic fever results from an inflammatory reaction to certain streptococcus A bacteria. The body produces antibodies to fight the bacteria, but instead the antibodies attack a different target: the body's own tissues. The antibodies begin with the joints and often move on to the heart and surrounding tissues. Because only a small fraction (fewer than 0.3 percent) of people with strep ever contract rheumatic fever, medical experts believe that other factors, such as a weakened immune system, must also be involved in the development of the disease.

Diagnostic and Test Procedures

To determine the presence of streptococcus bacteria, your doctor will do a throat culture. This uncomfortable but painless procedure involves swabbing out a sample of throat mucus for laboratory analysis. It usually takes 24 hours to grow and analyze the culture.

Your doctor will also give you a complete examination, listening to your heart for signs of inflammation and looking for other telltale symptoms, such as arthritis in more than one joint and the small bony protuberances, or nodules, that often appear over the swollen joints.

Treatment

Appropriate, often long-term, conventional treatment can greatly lessen the risk of heart disease and other health problems associated with rheumatic fever. Alternative treatments serve as complements to conventional care-helping to ease symptoms of the illness and strengthening the immune system to help avoid recurrent attacks.

Conventional Medicine

Your doctor will prescribe bed rest and penicillin to get rid of the streptococcal organisms. To prevent a recurrence of the illness, you may be put on a long-term prescription of antibiotics. For fever, inflammation, arthritic joint pain, and other symptoms, you may be given aspirin or an aspirin substitute and perhaps a corticosteroid. If you have developed rheumatic heart disease, surgery may be necessary to repair damage to the heart.

Alternative Choices

Your alternative-care practitioner, in consultation with your medical doctor, can provide treatments to supplement the antibiotics prescribed for rheumatic fever. Alternative medicine may also help you boost your immune system and reduce the likelihood of recurrent infections.

Herbal Therapies

To help fight the strep infection behind rheumatic fever, herbalists recommend several herbs with antimicrobial properties. Garlic (Allium sativum) is considered a particularly effective natural antibiotic. Take three cloves a day. If garlic smell becomes a problem, you can try three garlic oil capsules instead. Teas made from either goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) or echinacea (Echinacea spp.) can also be effective. Drink the brew at least three times a day. Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), sometimes called feverwort, can help relieve the fever and other discomforts of rheumatic fever. Make a tea from the herb; drink it hot and as often as every half-hour.

As a safe heart tonic that helps minimize any long-term damage rheumatic fever may have caused, drink hawthorn (Crataegus oxyacantha or Crataegus monogyna) tea daily. Or you can take 30 to 40 drops of hawthorn tincture twice a day.

Homeopathy

After you have recovered from the first attack of rheumatic fever, homeopaths recommend various treatments to avoid further attacks. Remedies include Aconite, Mercurius vivus, Bryonia, and Pulsatilla. Consult an experienced homeopath.

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